When I was a newbie improv student, I had a fantastic teacher – who taught me as much about life, art and the human condition as he did about improv – and one of the things he tried to ingrain in the way we approached improv was to love making mistakes. To bravely step forward and be ready to fail. Fail hard, and fail with everyone watching.
I tried, and made a little progress, but I never got to the point where I could say I loved failure, which is where my teacher seemed to want us to go. Love failure? I could understand preparing for failure, acknowledging failure, accepting failure, and learning from failure. But embracing and loving it for the great teacher that it is was simply too much for me.
I have my pride.
But it’s an important lesson, and I’ve come to realise that I’ve created my own version which I find more palatable. Instead of “LOVE FAILURE!”, I take pride in being a bad ____.
I write bad poetry.
I am a bad ukulele player.
I am a bad knitter.
And so on. I have essentially switched the love of failing with the love of not doing well.
I actually feel a perverse sort of joy in declaring, loudly sometimes, that I absolutely suck at something I love. For me it feels different to saying I am an amateur/beginner at something, or only average, etc. This is as close as I can get to loving (instead of merely accepting) something as difficult to love as failure. And I don’t want to contribute to the convergence of the (to me) separate meanings of ‘inexpert’ and ‘beginner’ – one has not mastered (with no reference to how much time has passed), the other has recently begun. So the beginner could be great at what they’ve begun despite being a novice. Amateur, to me, means someone who does not pursue their particular interest in a professional capacity.
Saying that I am bad at something, on the other hand, feels bold in its directness. We all want to be good at the things that bring us joy. Who wants to be bad at something they spend any real amount of time on? My pleasure in declaring my ineptitude comes about because I’ve realised that admitting to it takes the pressure off. I have placed so many unrealistic expectations on myself – I must be good at any endeavour quickly after beginning, and as for the things that I truly love, I can’t just be good, I have to really excel. Which, of course, leads to feeling disheartened and discouraged when I am stuck in the inept stage where I’m learning a lot and can see where I want to be but am still falling so miserably short. And by being turned off the things that have the ability to bring me joy, I am doing myself another disservice in cutting myself off from pleasurable pursuits as well as insight into who I am, in the form of what excites, interests and inspires me. If I stop writing poetry because I hate how bad at it I still am, I’ll have killed or at least dulled my love of poetry because it hurts too much to connect with it.
So – I acknowledge I am bad at my passions, but still identify as a student and doer of things.
I take heart whenever I hear (or play, ineptly) Amanda Palmer’s ingenious song ‘The Ukulele Anthem’, which exhorts us all to ‘play your ukulele badly/play your ukulele loudly’, and ‘stop pretending art is hard/just limit yourself to three chords and do not practice daily.’
Bad doesn’t mean becoming complacent, not putting the effort it, not recognising the joy of progressing and developing and growing. Bad doesn’t mean settling. Bad doesn’t mean not trying to become good. Bad definitely doesn’t mean dismissing people who are far better than us at an activity we love, as too earnest, or freaks, or undeserving of the gift of their talent. Bad simply means, being carefree and joyous in your thinking about your skill level, while you focus your energy on the much more important task of doing that thing you love and learning more about it. Bad means being okay with not being good yet.
With all that in mind, here I go again:
I speak German, French and Japanese BADLY
I dance well, but I am a BAD choreographer
I am BAD at drawing and painting
I am a BAD blogger
I am a BAD singer
I am a BAD drummer
Now that feels liberating. What are you bad at?